Incomprehensible Ocean

By Alison Hawthorne Deming

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Brazilian Notebook: A Series Set in Brazil

May 16.

What (Brazilian) tree is this?After Michaux (Ecuador: A Travel Journal): What is this name of this tree lining the beach, waxy open fists of leaves and briquets of green fruit.  What is the name of that boat? Single sail, boxy hull, huge wooden rudder where the stern man navigates in the calm space separating the sand beach from the marine thoroughfare where the queue of behemoth cargo ships and tankers head for the loading booms and siphons in the city’s port, lined up like milk cows waiting to come into the barn.  The small boat — not a panga, dhou, pirogue. I’m looking for what Michaux called “the faithful gong of the word,”  one of the simple hungers of travel that accompany me.

Today we met with students and teachers at Universidade Federal do Ceará, this northeastern state in Brazil which was described to us as the poorest region in the nation. Federal and state public universities here are free. It’s not easy to get in. But it can be a ticket out of a neighborhood so dangerous a college student will not go outside after dark. They stayed in the auditorium for over two hours, asking questions about writing and racism and violence and The Hunger Games. They were eager for the conversation about contemporary literature and so were we, feeling that joy, as one young man described to me, that although we came for such differing circumstances we could feel alike for certain things in the world. He’d lost a friend, an old woman who had loved butterflies. He missed her but had found in one of my poems that connection, sweet and sad, come close into memory. They asked about influences and I mentioned Elizabeth Bishop and her many years of living in Brazil. The professors said she was in the Brazilian canon, which was thrilling to hear.

Have I mentioned the air? Heat, ocean, breeze add up to constant laving of the skin. It’s never below 70 degrees here. We’re very close to the equator. When night falls it does so as suddenly as a broken elevator. When sun rises, it screams into the window. The moisture in the air is constant. I’m wet as an oyster all day long. We will be the writers of the soggy t-shirt school, the briquet of unknown fruit school, the beach of the future school — this style with its touch of imagery, its touch of emotion, its touch of refusal to celebrate apocalyptic thinking, its evening market of geegaws, its style of the familiar unfamiliar. I can’t write a word that sparks without the tutelage of another’s better said words. “The faithful gong of the word.”

Meanwhile the Atlantic Ocean goes on being its incomprehensible self, its algal and diatomic self, its bioluminescent and gilled self, the immense cauldron of invention streaming with protoplasmic will to make something of the breakdown that flows into it from every continental flank.

P.S. Here is a link to the vimeo of the stunning performance tonight by the Battery Dance Company including my work with the brilliant Carmen Nicole Smith, for whom I scored a poem for performance.  This was featured on Forteleza’s morning news too!



Alison Hawthorne Deming, Professor of Creative Writing and Agnese Nelms Haury Chair of Environment and Social Justice at the University of Arizona, is author of four poetry books, including Rope (Penguin 2009), and four books of nonfiction, including Writing the Sacred Into the Real and Zoologies (Milkweed 2014). She’s received the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets, Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bayer Award in Science Writing and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her poems and prose have been widely anthologized, including in The Norton Book of Nature Writing and Best American Science and Nature Writing.
Read poetry, an essay (“The Cheetah Run”), a guest editorial (“Ruin and Renewal”), and an interview with Alison Hawthorne Deming appearing in

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